Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Worth Watching: Desk Set (1957)

Title: Desk Set
Director: Walter Lang
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Desk Set is a charming office romance featuring Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn), the head research librarian at a major TV network, and Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy), an engineer whose giant computer might cost Bunny and her team of librarians their jobs.

One description I read of this movie claimed that Bunny and Richard clash dramatically, but I didn't find this to be true. The movie shows them slowly getting comfortable with each other and developing a mutual respect; both of them are quirky, middle-aged nerds, and their romance is gentle.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set

Bunny has a boyfriend at the beginning of the movie - one of the network executives, in fact (played by Gig Young) - but he desires her more for her dependability and usefulness and less for her personal qualities. Richard, on the other hand, just likes her as she is and respects her work. Given that Desk Set was filmed in the 1950s, I was surprised that the movie did a fairly decent job portraying a group of smart, hard-working women in the workplace who are friends and colleagues. These ladies are also very snappy dressers.

Joan Blondell and others in Desk Set

The only woman whose portrayal was off-the-mark was Richard's finicky lab assistant, who collapses into unnecessary and unrealistic hysterics at one point, because the filmmakers thought it would be funny.

I enjoyed the giant computer, EMERAC - really a sign of the times, how huge this computer was. And though computers have become much smaller, and more powerful and multifunctional, the concern raised in this movie is still relevant today: In what ways will computers take the place of people in the workplace? The movie's answer to that is rather sophisticated; it really takes into consideration the kinds of jobs people perform and the limitations of computers.

What else did I like? Bunny's friendship with her most senior employee, Peg (Joan Blondell), and their fun at an office holiday party.

Katharine Hepburn and Joan Blondell as Bunny and Peg in Desk Set

I'm glad I came across Desk Set. It's low-key, lovely, with some well-written conversations and memorable scenes (including a rooftop lunch combined with a test of memory and logic). The screenplay was written by Nora Ephron's parents, Phoebe and Henry; I'm not that familiar with their work or with Nora's, but if you're a fan, that's another reason to check out this movie.

*All images link back to their sources (The Movie Projector and Glamamor).